Middle East update: August 3-4 2017


There’s been a bit of ISIS activity in Ninewa province over the past couple of days–for example, ISIS forces in Tal Afar unsuccessfully attacked a couple of villages outside that city, undoubtedly an attempt to forestall the coming Iraqi operation there. The Tal Afar operation should begin fairly soon and is unlikely to be anywhere near as difficult or complicated as Mosul was, though some of the overconfident comments coming from Iraqi officers over the past couple of days are concerning.

A United Nations commission said Thursday that not enough is being done to help Iraq’s Yazidi community recover from the genocide it suffered at ISIS’s hands three years ago:

“The genocide is ongoing and remains largely unaddressed, despite the obligation of states … to prevent and to punish the crime,” the commissioners said in a statement.

Fighters were driven out of the last part of the Yazidi homeland in northern Iraq in May.

However, most Yazidis have yet to return to villages they fled when the group overran Sinjar in the summer of 2014, killing and capturing thousands because of their faith.

Nearly 3,000 Yazidi women and children remain in ISIL captivity, and control over Sinjar is disputed by rival armed groups and their regional patrons.

Sinjar has become a battleground for rivalries between the Iraqi Kurdish Democratic Party, the Turkish Kurdistan Workers’ Party (and its Syrian Democratic Union Party branch), and the Popular Mobilization Units. Some of the Yazidis’ continued struggles could be alleviated if the Iraqi government were strong enough to clamp down on that factional clashing.

Speaking of the PMU, Baghdad has begun bringing some of its militias under the direct authority of its defense ministry, an effort to professionalize these units and ensure that they’re being controlled by the Iraqi government rather than by Iran. Baghdad and Tehran are allies, but the Iraqis understandably aren’t terribly keen to have armed paramilitary forces running around the country beholden to Iranian bosses. It’s not clear how fast this process will go or how many of the component PMU militias will participate–there are undoubtedly some that will remain under Iranian sway.

Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi has been studying ISIS documents as they’ve been uncovered and released here and there over the course of the campaign against them. He wrote Wednesday on a new batch of archives found in al-Bab, Syria, that illustrate aspects of the group’s internal security structure. Two findings jump out: first, that ISIS has been (or at least was when it was still functioning normally) more centralized than many researchers have suspected it was; and second, that the way the group’s internal security apparatus was organized shows considerable influence from the way similar groups (particularly al-Qaeda and its affiliates) organize their internal security. That’s not especially surprising, but it does argue against the theory that ex-Iraq Baathist officers came in to ISIS and restructured its internal security into something more along the lines of what Saddam Hussein’s Iraq employed.


Dozens of Syrian activist organizations have written a collective letter to the UN arguing that the UN peace process has been hijacked by external forces (Russia, Turkey, and Iran, for example) who are diverting attention away from what the talks should be doing: negotiating Syria’s political transition. They certainly have a point about outside interference, but I think the current Syrian government might disagree that political transition is or ought to be the talks’ main issue.

A third ceasefire/safe-zone deal went into effect just north of Homs on Thursday. Russian military police began deploying to the area on Friday to begin monitoring the ceasefire. This comes after similar zones have been put in place in southwestern Syria and in the Ghouta suburb of Damascus. A bit to the south, heavy fighting was reported on Friday between government and rebel forces around the village of Maan, in northern Hama province.

The fourth planned safe zone, in Idlib, is now very much in jeopardy thanks to Hayʾat Tahrir al-Sham’s consolidation of power there. It was already hard to see how Damascus and Moscow would simply allow rebels to control Idlib indefinitely, but HTS taking control of the province gives them a pretext to attack it, and makes it less likely that Western countries could, or would, oppose such an offensive. Bear in mind that because the province has served as the destination point for Syrian civilians evacuating other parts of the country in the wake of the government retaking them, its population has swelled to an estimated 2 million people or more, so a Syrian-Russian offensive, with all the care and caution they’ve shown in previous offensives, is likely to be a massive bloodbath. Which may be what HTS wants, since that could help recruit new fighters.

On a brighter note, UNESCO’s associate program coordinator in Aleppo said Thursday that the agency wants to rebuild Aleppo’s Old City “exactly as it was before the war, with the same stones where we can.” That will require a monumental effort, but past restoration work on the Old City’s major sites should allow for accurate reconstruction. Much of the rest of the neighborhood, though–streets, homes, etc.–is still totally lost.


Yemeni government forces, backed by US and UAE assistance, have reportedly undertaken a “major operation” against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen’s Shabwa province. The BBC, at least, is reporting that they’ve driven AQAP out of the province’s “main cities.” Meanwhile, the Saudis killed 12 civilians in a couple of airstrikes in Saada province on Friday. Freeing Yemen from the Yemenis, I like it.


On Wednesday, the Turkish government undertook a nearly wholesale replacement of its top military brass:

After months of speculation, Turkey’s chief of the General Staff, Hulusi Akar, survived a shake-up of Turkey’s top brass on Wednesday that saw the heads of the army, the air force and navy replaced. Doubt had fallen on the prospects for Akar’s continued leadership after the failed July coup attempt last year and conflicting accounts of his actions that day.

The commander of the Turkish Land Forces, Salih Zeki Colak, will be replaced by the commander of the gendarmerie, Yasar Guler, who was detained and interned by the rebel officers during the coup. Navy chief Bulent Bostanoglu will cede his position to Adnan Ozbal, a vice admiral, and Hasan Kucukakyuz, the commander of the Turkish Warfare Air Force, replaces air force commander Abidin Unal.

Guler’s shift to the Land Forces Command suggests that the path has been cleared for him to become the next chief of the General Staff when Akar, whose handling of the coup is seen by many as riddled with contradictions and incompetence, likely retires next year. As Al-Monitor columnist Metin Gurcan has noted, Guler is known for his ferocious opposition to Fethullah Gulen, the Pennsylvania-based Sunni cleric the government has accused of orchestrating the July 15 coup.

Akar is a “Kemalist,” one of the high-ranking Turkish officers whose careers span back into the days when Turkish democracy was always just a coup away from being reset. So he’s obviously suspect in Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey. Güler could also be categorized as a Kemalist, but he’s clean by virtue of having been tossed in the cooler by the coup plotters last summer. The big picture here is that Erdoğan wants to increase civilian control over the military and/or purge the officer corps of anyone who might potentially be disloyal to him (how you interpret Erdoğan’s actions depends on how you feel about Erdoğan himself). But a full-on purge right now could cause more trouble than it alleviates, so Akar was allowed to stay on to try to maintain some semblance of continuity (and because he and Güler get along well), with the understanding that he’ll be out no later than when his current term ends in 2019.


Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said Friday that the next phase of Lebanon’s border clearing operation in Arsal will be led by the Lebanese army, with assistance from Hezbollah and the Syrian army across the border. The first part of the Arsal offensive targeted Tahrir al-Sham–this second part will clear an enclave currently controlled by ISIS.


If you’re having a bad day, consider that at least you’re probably having a better one than Benjamin Netanyahu is:

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s former chief of staff Ari Harow has reached an agreement with the prosecution to turn state’s witness in two corruption cases against Netanyahu.

Under the deal, Harow will be convicted of fraud and breach of trust in a separate case, but will avoid jail time. Instead, he will do community service as pay a 700,000-shekel ($193,000) fine.

The Israel Police confirmed on Thursday that the prime minister is suspected of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Netanyahu’s bureau rejected the allegations on Thursday, calling them “unfounded claims.”

Who knows where this will go next, but the chances of Netanyahu being indicted are now presumably quite a bit higher. And based on recent Israeli precedent–under which, frankly, it’s surprising Netanyahu hasn’t already resigned–it’s difficult to imagine that he could remain in office if he’s indicted. What happens after that is anybody’s guess. Netanyahu has already run off his likeliest successor within the Likud Party, former Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon.

Long-term, centrist Yesh Atid Party head Yair Lapid is trying to position himself as Netanyahu’s number one challenger now, so he’s likely the front-runner to replace him unless Likud can get its act together. Lapid’s big problem is that he’s been spending so much time trying to peel center-right voters away from Netanyahu that he’s starting to lose considerable support to his left–whoa, I just had the weirdest case of deja vu. However, while Netanyahu can’t quash the investigation into his dealings, he can probably draw it out for several months, which makes speculating about potential successors now kind of pointless.


Let’s check in on America’s best friend in the Middle East, the country that definitely doesn’t repeatedly trample on basic human rights unlike those awful Iranians:

Munir al-Adam spends his hours alone in a Saudi prison, his mother says. He doesn’t know if it is day or night because he is kept mostly in a dark cell. Partially blind and partially deaf, he has experienced different forms of torture in the five years since his arrest.

“He has been ordered to stand for long intervals of time,” said his mother, Zahraa Abdullah. “He was beaten with sticks and cables. He was electrocuted and prevented from eating or going to the bathroom.”

Adam and 13 other Saudi men are facing execution any day now for allegedly staging protests in the kingdom. All from the country’s Shiite minority, they include a teenager who was arrested just before he was to board a flight to visit a U.S. college where he planned to study English and finance.

The 14 men, all Shiʿa, were arrested shortly after the 2011 Arab Spring protests in Saudi Arabia’s eastern (and predominantly Shiʿa) Qatif province. It presumably comes as no surprise that these men have “confessed” to, well, probably whatever the people torturing them were after. Their actual crimes all appear to revolve around participating in those protests, truly a heinous act if ever there was one.

At the risk of repeating myself, this would probably be a good time to remind everybody that this is what’s happening in Saudi Arabia right now:

If the Iranian government were deliberately depopulation and destroying a town predominantly populated by a religious or ethnic minority, the US government would undoubtedly call that religious or ethnic cleansing, because that’s what it is. The Saudis, however, have a permanent pass from Washington to brutalize their own people with little repercussion, and they have an extra-special pass from Donald Trump to do whatever the fuck they want, on account of how one time they projected his disgusting mug on the side of a fancy hotel:



Tehran is not mincing any words about new US sanctions that were signed into law by Trump this week:

New U.S. sanctions targeting Iran are a breach of its nuclear deal with world powers and an attempt to abolish the accord, Iranian officials said Thursday, adding that the government will respond to what it sees as an escalation of U.S. aggression.

“We believe that the nuclear deal has been violated, and we will react appropriately,” Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi said on state television Thursday.

Araghchi is being deliberately ambiguous to leave open the possibility that Iran might withdraw from the deal, but right now it seems they’re merely going to take their complaints to the UN Security Council, which won’t accomplish anything but might embarrass Washington a little bit. I don’t think they’ll pull out of the deal when Trump decertifies Iran’s compliance with it, without evidence, in October. If Iran withdraws from the deal they want to be sure that the US takes the blame for it entirely, so that European countries aren’t tempted to rejoin any US-led sanctions effort. And if Tehran just has a little patience, the Trump administration seems likely to give them what they want.

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